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Putting The Care Back Into Health Care

Aired 2/22/12 on KPBS News.

Medical students at UC San Diego learn that being a good doctor means being compassionate and caring.

Evening Edition

Above: Whether it's transplanting an organ or saving a premature baby, doctors can do things that would have been considered miracles 100 years ago. But while medical science has evolved, the need for doctors to be caring and compassionate hasn't changed. UC San Diego Medical School is trying to make sure aspiring doctors get that message. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg tells us about one medical student that's seen the light.

— Whether it’s transplanting an organ or saving a premature baby, doctors can do things that would have been considered miracles 100 years ago.

But while medical science has evolved, the need for doctors to be caring and compassionate hasn’t changed.

UC San Diego Medical School is trying to make sure aspiring doctors get that message.

There’s something different going on on a recent Tuesday afternoon at UC San Diego Medical School.

First- and second-year students are gathering to hear from some of their soon-to-be-graduating colleagues.

The speakers have been nominated by their peers to be in the Gold Humanism Honor Society.

The organization honors medical students who have the talent to be truly caring and empathetic doctors.

Each panelist described a moment when the light came on about what it means to be a compassionate physician.

"I’ve been thinking about what I would say for a couple of days, and it’s hard to try to come up with one specific example," said fourth-year student Pritha Workman. "But my journey through medical school has been one of ups and downs, and my own perspective on myself has changed a lot. Hopefully that will come out in this story."

Pritha Workman, 32, has a unique background. She did her undergraduate work at the U.S. Naval Academy. She then spent six years in the Marine Corps, rising to the rank of captain. In the midst of medical school, she’s been raising a young child.

Inside the emergency room at UC San Diego’s Thornton Hospital, Workman visits with an elderly patient.

"Hi, I’m Pritha Workman. It’s very nice to meet you," she said to the man lying in bed. "How are you doing? I’m here to talk to you about what brought you into the emergency department today."

Workman listened to the patient for a moment, and asked, "Actually, do you mind if I sit down, is that all right? I feel like I’m standing over you…"

"Ask any patient," Workman said afterwards. "Ask any individual in our society, how do they think the medical system treats them. Sometimes the care may not be technically enough, and they’ll tell you. But I think a lot of times people feel ignored, abandoned, not listened to, and I think it’s just having that awareness that I think our patients are going to start demanding more. Well, they want more. I would. I want that as a patient.”

Workman tries to keep that in mind when she interacts with patients in the emergency room.

"So basically, you went to sleep last night feeling fine?" she asked a woman in another bed.

"Fine, yeah."

"OK, woke up this morning with kind of a vague set of symptoms, kind of in the middle part of your lower abdomen?" asked Workman.

"Yeah, yeah," the woman nodded.

Dr. Jim Dunford is professor emeritus of clinical medicine and surgery at UC San Diego. He says physicians have to have good technical and clinical skills. But he added they also need to be able to relate to anyone who walks in the door.

"You know, we have drug addicts, we have alcoholics, we have people with terrible metastatic cancer problems," Dunford said. "You gotta read that setting, and within two, three seconds, people are really gonna understand whether or not you are into the problem and are there to help them, or if you’re just trying to, you know, just be a technician. And that’s not what medicine is.”

Dunford said physicians are involved in the real-life drama of people’s lives. And they must play their part well.

"If you’re going in the room to tell a family that grandma’s just died, you’ve gotta be good at that," he pointed out. "I mean, because those people will remember that experience for the rest of their life."

Back at UC San Diego Medical School, Workman described an incident that really hit home.

She was on her surgical rotation. Her medical team flew up to the Central Valley to collect a liver.

"This particular patient was 19 years old, and had been a victim of gang violence," Workman told the audience. "He had suffered a gunshot wound to the head. And I hate this phrase, and it has not yet settled well with me, that it was considered incompatible with life."

The boy’s mom made the decision to donate his organs to save someone else’s life.

"When I finally saw the results, and how we saved someone, I was happy," Workman recalled. "But that day, as someone’s mother, I had to mourn. So, I’m not sure if being a doctor’s making me a better mom, but I think being a mother is making me a much better doctor.”

Pritha Workman will graduate soon. She plans to take a year off before she enters her residency.

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